View across the Outer Harbour of Stornoway

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Russia, the Crimea and the Ukraine

The Crimea, a peninsula in the north of the Black Sea, has been part of the Ukraine since 1954, with a section being used by the Russian Federation for its Black Sea fleet under treaties signed in 1994. The Crimea, scene of a war in the 1850s, has a mixed population, consisting of 55% Russians, 21% Crimean Tartars and the rest Ukraineans. Although the regional government of the Crimea is appointed by the Ukrainean government in Kiev, armed men loyal to the Russian majority have now seized power and have requested (and are getting) support from Vladimir Putin's Russia. Russian troops have deployed outside the naval base at Sevastopol, and have mounted a de-facto invasion of Ukrainean territory, although no combat appears to be taking place.

It is also interesting to place this in the context of recent events in the Ukraine. This large country (which spans 800 miles east to west) has a Russian speaking minority in the east. Late last year, president Yanukovich turned down a trade deal with the EU in favour of a much more appealing offer from Russia. If memory serves, the EU offered £1bn, whereas Russia's carrot was £17bn. At the time, I commented that I did not fault Yanukovich for taking that deal. However, the population in the west of Ukraine was very unhappy, and started demonstrations in Kiev which have lasted since November. They have resulted in more than 70 deaths as well as the de-facto deposing of Mr Yanukovich. He appears to have been enriching himself not unlike Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, and seems to have fallen out of favour with even the Russian minority in the east of his country. Yanukovich appears to have been spirited out of the Crimea into Russia.

Last Sunday, during the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia's president Vladimir Putin could be seen looking decidedly glum. Do not forget that Yanukovich was his man, and his replacement (referred to by the Kremlin as "Ukrainean ultra-nationalists" poses a "direct threat to the live (sic) and health of Russian citizens". We can therefore expect the Crimea to be placed under Russian control (never mind those treaties), to safeguard the health and safety of Russian citizens. That will create tensions, as the Crimean Tartars are not enamoured with the Russians. Under Stalin, a large number of them were deported from the Crimea and murdered. However, Mr Putin appears to be flexing the muscles of the Russian Federation in the face of the popular uprising in Kiev. He will regard the Ukraine as his backyard, to be ruled by who he approves - and if that no longer is the case, he will take whatever is required to remedy that situation. Including the use of force.

Russia appears to be in a strong position. The Western powers cannot do anything to intervene, without risking a direct confrontation with the Russian Federation. At the end of the day, we may well find Russian forces onto Ukrainean territory proper, north of the Crimea, to reinstate Yanukovich in Kiev - at whatever cost. Barack Obama was talking about 'costs'. Like what? Mr Obama needs Mr Putin more than Mr Putin needs Mr Obama. Instances of note are the civil war in Syria and the question of Iran's nuclear programme. I have to laugh when I watch David Cameron, Angela Merkel and Barack Obama in earnest telephone conversations with Vladimir Putin, who pledges to uphold the territorial integrity of the Ukraine - aye, he will. But our Vladimir, who is a clever political player, will not rest until the politics of his western neighbour are aligned to serve his interests best. If anybody starts to make a real fuss, all he has to do is turn off the gas.

Putin will enjoy large support on the home front. There are many people in Russia today who long for the lost days when the Soviet Union was a superpower, with a sphere of influence to match. The Russian bear has woken up and finds it is strong. Beware.